John Kerry Takes the Lead on Syria as Obama Halts at Becoming More Involved

Secretary of State John Kerry with President Vladimir Putin and Sergey Lavrov, left, of Russia on Monday at the United Nations. (Credit: Pool photo by Mikhail Klimentiev)
Secretary of State John Kerry with President Vladimir Putin and Sergey Lavrov, left, of Russia on Monday at the United Nations. (Credit: Pool photo by Mikhail Klimentiev)

For four years, President Obama has watched the civil war in Syria with deep frustration. It is, he tells advisers, an intractable situation, though he uses a grittier word. The best the United States can do in the short term, he says, is manage it as much as possible.

But to Secretary of State John Kerry, the mushrooming crisis cries out for American attention. No less aware of the challenge, he seems willing to go anywhere, anytime, and meet with anyone in pursuit of a resolution. The idea that it may be elusive, or even impossible, is no deterrent.

The disparate outlooks define the administration’s approach as the crisis metastasizes from a blood bath that has cost more than 200,000 lives and fueled a resurgence of Islamic radicalism into a new confrontation with Russia and a refugee crisis engulfing Europe. The Obama and Kerry views are not incompatible, advisers say, but they shape the internal discussions that drive the American response.

“There’s probably a psychological difference between the two,” said Frederic C. Hof, who worked on Syria as a State Department official during Mr. Obama’s first term. “The president is at peace determining that something is just a loser, that if he touches it, he’s going to make it worse. Whereas Kerry has the typical American engineering approach to things — there’s a problem, there’s a way to fix it, somehow.”

Syria, so far, has defied every attempt to fix it, although critics argue the administration has not tried hard enough. Mr. Obama demanded the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad without success. He threatened retaliation if Syria crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons against civilians, but aborted strikes in favor of a negotiated removal of Mr. Assad’s arsenal.

The yearlong military campaign against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has in the meantime made little headway. Pentagon officials, who recently acknowledged that only four to five American-trained Syrian rebels were actually in the fight, said on Tuesday that they would keep trying to recruit fighters but that for now “we have paused the actual movement of new recruits from Syria.”

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SOURCE: PETER BAKER
The New York Times